Of all the genres and kinds of films that get produced by Hollywood and independent filmmakers in this day and age, few are traditionally more uptight and limited in form that of the period piece adaptation of a classic piece of literature. When dealing with a period piece of any kind, incorporating anything outside of a strictly formal treatment is hard to get away with and will likely alienate the audience, if not a studio even prior to the film’s production or release. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a Jane Austen adaptation, totally defies this tradition, abandoning formal presentation in favor of snappy, fast-paced and humorous dialogue, abrupt musical cues, on-screen text, freeze-frame character introductions, and a host of other atypical inclusions.
Before I even jump into the film itself, it is worth noting that even the title is a daring move. Opting not to use the title of the classic work of literature on which the film is based, Lady Susan, is in and of itself a risky maneuver as there is potential for avid fans of the book to not realize that this is an adaptation they might be interested in. So right off the bat you are throwing away possible audience members. To add to the confusion, the title writer-director Whit Stillman opted for, Love and Friendship, is derived from a different work that is also by Jane Austen. It is not a well known work, one even classified as one of her “juvenile writings.” Still, this adds to the risk of abandoning the title Lady Susan by creating additional potential confusion.
From the moment the credits conclude, it is apparent that this will not be your average Jane Austen adaptation. From the get-go we are introduced to Stillman’s inspired method of telling the story through portrait-like shots of still characters that introduce them with minimal on-screen text, providing each character’s name and relationship to the other characters. This effectively gets the introduction of the film’s sizable cast out of the way in a way that mirrors the experience of reading an epistolary novel (which Lady Susan is) as a means of getting to know characters and how they are connected.
From there the story jumps in almost exactly where the novel does, with Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), an infamous flirt and social deviant, moving in with her in-laws, the DeCourcys. The reason for her sudden arrival is the house she had previously stayed at, the Mainwarings, had become inhospitable to her as a result of her notorious flirting and a potential affair between her and the head of that household. While she was there, she was attempting to set up her daughter Frederica, whom she holds in very low regard, with a wealthy dunce named Sir Charles, whom Frederica holds in low regard.
Instead of bringing Frederica with her to Churchill (the home of the DeCourcys), Susan sends her away to school, mostly as a means of getting rid of her. Susan, unable to avoid flirtation and controversy, and also in need of money, takes to flirting with Reginald DeCourcy, the younger brother of Lady DeCourcy, to the disgust of nearly all his relatives. Lady DeCourcy attempts to undermine this relationship with the assistance of her parents, who live at a distance and are corresponded with via letters.
What enfolds from this set up is classic Jane Austen, with a series of characters and couples intermingling, swapping, and criss-crossing ambitions and paths until everything snaps into place in the third act. In terms of the narrative produced by Austen, what sets Lady Susan apart is that the central character is not particularly likable. She is a schemer who is more disruptive to society than even Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. Susan is also older, in her thirties, and formerly married. She is not an eligible bachelorette. Instead she is a scandalous woman pushing the limits of her sex appeal, and therefor potential for remarriage, who will do anything to satisfy herself regardless of the impact it has on others. Her co-conspirator Mrs. Johnson is the only character to which she shows genuine respect and, to a certain extent, she is depicted as just as despicable.
That said, as I read the novel and watch the movie, I find myself rooting for Susan and Mrs. Johnson, in part because their strategizing and behavior is simply amusing to behold, and in part because the society they stand in opposition to is so silly and outdated that it is hard not take pleasure in watching Susan act as a human wrecking ball to the institutions of marriage and family, even when it backfires and blows up in her face.
Despite the deviation from the source material’s title, Love and Friendship is a faithful adaptation to a tee. But this is not a simple story to adapt. Epistolary novels, by virtue, offer essentially no dialogue to work with. And it is worth taking into account here that the source material was born out of and is based on a society now two hundred years gone and was centered around a British, female perspective. Whit Stillman is an American male who has brought this book to vivid life in what feels like Austen’s own words. In many cases, they really are Austen’s words as much of the dialogue is extracted directly from the letters. This in and of itself is a screenwriting feat of no small proportion. People do not write as they speak. Being able to work exact sentences and phrases from letters into dialogue as he has, and to have it come out so naturally, is simply impressive, particularly when you take into account how effortlessly he has interwoven his own original words into the text.
Love and Friendship winds up being the best Jane Austen adaptation since the Ang Lee-Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility from 1995. In that film you had Thompson on screen and penning the work and Ang Lee behind the camera. Until now, this was the most high profile adaptation of any Austen novel. Love and Friendship sports a similar duo of serious and well-suited talent in Whit Stillman handling the screenplay and the direction and Kate Beckinsale dropping easily the most memorable performance of her three decade career in the title role. She is intimidating, strong, beautiful, and poised in all circumstances. Every performance in the film is quite good, but Beckinsale appropriately dominates almost every frame of the film.
When all is said and done, I can’t imagine we will ever see another Jane Austen film quite like this one. Love and Friendship incorporates post-modern techniques and wall-to-wall humor in a period piece that retains its feeling of being of the era from which the narrative originates. This impossible to comprehend achievement really is something special to witness. If there are any criticisms I have of the film, they occur right at the end, where the film suddenly feels a bit rushed. The final moment didn’t quite land for me and the cut to credits felt abrupt and unexpected, even though I knew the narrative had concluded. Still, I can’t recommend the film enough to anyone who admires Jane Austen or simply wants a good laugh for ninety minutes, as my quibbles are but minor ones.